THE UK Government’s commitment to plant 30,000 ha of trees annually must be matched by grey squirrel control, a conservation charity has warned.

The European Squirrel Initiative (ESI) said millions of pounds will be at risk if non-native species, including grey squirrel populations, are not managed.

In his March 2020 budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak pledged that 30,000 ha of trees would be planted per year by 2025, but the ESI is warning that the initiative will be futile unless action is taken to reduce the threat of damage caused by grey squirrels stripping bark, either killing trees outright or damaging them enough to allow infections in.

A recent report, commissioned by the Royal Forestry Society, estimated that grey squirrels will cost the woodland sector £1.1 billion over the next 40 years in damaged timber, lost carbon revenue and tree replacements.

Forestry minister Lord Goldsmith has acknowledged the threat of invasive non-native species like grey squirrels and muntjac deer, recently telling the House of Lords they cost the economy around £1.8 billion per year, while impacting negatively on trees and woodland.

READ MORE: Grey squirrels to do over £1.1 billion in woodland damage

Citing the work of the UK Squirrel Accord (UKSA) in developing an oral contraceptive to reduce the grey squirrel population, Lord Goldsmith also highlighted the work of the Roslin Institute in researching ways to breed infertility into females, a project funded by the ESI.

The ESI said that by embracing gene editing tools, grey squirrel populations could be suppressed by spreading female infertility genes through targeted populations, leading in time to population decline owing to the lack of fertile female squirrels available as breeding partners.

“ESI has funded this research, through the Roslin Institute, into species-specific, humane and cost-effective solutions to managing invasive grey squirrel populations in the UK,” said Graham Taylor, ESI chairman.

“We feel this offers the opportunity to control the damage grey squirrels cause both economically and ecologically to the UK, while providing a realistic proposition for red squirrel conservation.”

The ESI’s own research in 2019 revealed that grey squirrels cost the UK economy around £40 million every year.

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